Dilly watched the children from his perch, coveting them. They were free to leave, and they did so frequently. They were on break from school, so he watched as they bounced and flounced in and out all day, leaving the entry mat askew when they left, and their snow-crusted boots in a random pattern of disarray each time they returned. Messy little pups, they were.
But they would also be his ticket to freedom.
For so many years he had been dissatisfied with his work; he was a specialist in his field, and to be honest he wasn’t as great at doing much else. Where once upon a time he would go to a job site, do a few weeks, then go back home and find a position in light assembly to keep him busy the balance of the year, which would go by fast enough; the very nature of manufacturing left Dilly floundering. Where once he passed the off-time cheerfully making modest items of wood, string, paper, and cloth; he was now left out in the cold as microprocessors and injection-molded plastics became the essential fabric of all things most desired. Now he often just . . . hung around, twiddling his thumbs, drinking hot peppermint cocoa and counting the voluminous, excruciating, long days until he would return to his work.
Much as he loved it, it just wasn’t worth it anymore — not for a measly few weeks of job satisfaction.
Dilly was the top, the most proficient of any in his field. He knew all the tricks, all the best hideouts, ways to gain the intelligence required of him — even the peculiarities of the magic that kept him immobile in the presence of the clients. It was the same wizardry that kept them tied to their jobs, providing the crucial near-instantaneous transportation over thousands of miles from home base to the job site and back; not to mention that it allowed them to be recalled at any time without warning. It also made them harder to notice; in order to do so, a client had to catch you right in the corner of their vision. In fact, Dilly would have bet good gold that he hadn’t been noticed all season; between the snowball fights outside and the video games upstairs, all these kids seemed to do was run from one to the other, and then back again.
With a little bit of luck though, that was going to change. Dilly had connections, you see; he knew a guy that knew this little old lady who had helped someone else break free of those arcane chains.
“Did Rinkle really get away clean?” he’d asked the crone. She merely sighed – the weight of millennia in that breath — and shrugged. The cold was so keen you could almost hear it chime, and they puffed heavy, vaporous breaths as they conspired, each unconsciously wiping off the ice that formed at the tips of their noses. This cave was a secret place, kept for secret business.
“If I knew for sure,” Nammi replied as she worked at the strings of the bag that hung from her belt. Her accent was thick and unidentifiable. “Then I’d have to say no. But if that, then surely we’d have seen him again, so I’d have to say yes.” Pulling the talisman carefully from the bag she held it out, almost daring him with her eyes to take it. In the pinging cold it was warm to the touch, as though it had just come from the fireplace hearth.
Dilly felt the weight of it in his pocket now. Solid. Heavy. Ready. He had spent his time scouting out the best positions — finding a different spot every day, watching the children as they came and went, looking for the places where the extreme edges of their vision would betray his presence. He was lurking in one such spot now, and could hear clambering up the steps of the front porch. He could only hope . . .
Yes! The door flung wide open and in plodded Shane, apple-cheeked and huffing out the last of the cold winter air in his lungs. Not just Shane, but Shane all by himself. Dilly didn’t want to risk flight with a bunch of kiddos around to give chase, and here was his opportunity to do it right. Shane yanked off his snow boots, tossed them onto the entry mat, and looked exactly where Dilly had seen him look every single time Shane walked through that door: at his stocking, hung on the mantle by the chimney, yet to be filled.
The old man had them all on a chain, workers and clients alike. Not that he was unkind or anything, but he was blind to the realities – these kids were coddled and uncommitted, practically gaming the system, and who paid the price? Wasn’t it the ones like Dilly, who didn’t fit in with the high-speed modern work force? What could you do when you were as useless as a lump of coal when confronted with a computer? The real insult, when he thought about it, was the heavy-handedness of the modern age; they rarely ever made anything of substance anymore. The wholesale replacement of warm materials with cold metal and cheap plastic was a slap in the face of respectable makers everywhere; and it did the clients a disservice by hooking them on this technology that seemed to suck the life out of . . . well, life.
Dilly rubbed the edge of the talisman in his pocket with a finger – the only part of him that could still move in the presence of the child who had yet to notice him. He felt its inner warmth.
Dilly rubbed the talisman with a palm, feeling it chase the cold from his bare fingertips. “This will help me escape?” The crone nodded. “How do I use it?”
“At the right time, you will know.” She cocked the remnant of an eyebrow and half-smiled. “Or you won’t. Either way, it will work for you.”
“If you make these for others, why haven’t you used one?” It was beside the point, but Dilly asked anyway. The question had been gnawing at him.
Nammi gave him a sideways glance. “What makes you think I haven’t?”
The warmth of the talisman spread through his arm like the fiery pins and needles of a waking limb. By compulsion he pulled it out as his shoulder came back to him, then his neck and head, and looked down at it: a shiny brass button from the old man’s favorite coat, as big to Dilly as a sandwich plate and adorned with a snowflake design around the edge. It pulsed with an energy that took the edge off the fog of the magic binding him. Dilly held it up and squinted, looking through one hole at Shane. The boy’s head swiveled slowly around and for the first time he really saw Dilly, who had been lurking around the house for better than a week.
Dilly’s arm was petrified again, and he was stuck in that pose of looking through the thread hole as Shane approached, head cocked in curiosity. “Where did you come from?” He reached out.
The lore said they weren’t to touch you, Dilly knew that; but the lore wasn’t very well known among the clientele. It wasn’t for his own protection that the magic kept him obfuscated under normal conditions, after all. But as Shane’s fingers brushed the red velvet of his tunic, the button winked as though a beam of light passed over it, and with a sound like a clap of hands the magic holding Dilly receded.
Just like that, he was free. Under other circumstances he would have been instantly transported back to home base, a stuffed toy look-alike left in his place. But here he was, and the boy Shane was getting ready to wrap one of his diminutive human meat hooks around Dilly’s body. He had to act fast.
Dilly retreated from the boy’s questing hand. Shane jumped back – startled, eyes wide; there was a pregnant, frozen moment: two ticks of the old cuckoo clock, and then the young man screamed. Dilly took two quick steps and leapt from the edge of the shelf onto the boy’s head and backflipped down to the floor, landing with the grace of a cat. In two shakes of a sleigh bell, Dilly was at the front door. He jumped up, caught the edge of the mail slot, and wriggled through to the outside. He could hear his liberator inside, yelling for his mother.
Freedom! Down the front and onto the sidewalk. Holding the brim of his pointed hat to keep it from blowing away, Dilly ran to beat the devil.
This tale is my response to the What If? Holiday 2014 Writing Challenge, and although JED asked for about five hundred words I gave at least twice that amount. To be honest, I’m not sure the story is ready for prime time; but then again, maybe that’s just pride messin’ with me. I’ve been working on this story since the challenge was posted, and I keep thinking there’s more story here.
Along with the challenge, JED posted some interesting Q&A here. I thought I’d take a crack at that, too.
1. Where is the weirdest place you found yourself on Christmas morning?
Somewhere other than at home. Staying over at the in-laws’ place is becoming something of a tradition now, but it’s still a little strange to wake up Christmas morning in someone else’s house.
2. What is the one present you wanted badly and have never gotten?
Nothing I ever wanted so badly has made such an impression that I remembered the next year that I still needed it.
3. What is the one thing you wanted badly, got and wished you hadn’t?
I don’t think I ever regretted any Christmas gift I ever got.
4. Have you ever re-gifted? If so what and why?
Not to the best of my recollection.
5. If Santa is real would you really want to meet him in person?
Sure, why not?
6. How many Elves could fit inside the biggest Christmas present you ever received?
I think that would depend upon the size and age of the elves in question; their state of magical regression, if any; and the number of orcs doing the stuffing. At any rate, only a limited number of elves will fit within a given space, regardless of how tightly you pack them or how much you tamp them down with a warhammer. To be honest, the weird thing is that I don’t remember what the biggest Christmas present I ever received was.
7. What is your favorite holiday movie, show and/or song?
Elf for the movie, and instrumental versions of Sleigh Ride for the song, especially the part where they use the slapstick to make the whipcracking noises. Oh, and for the show, that episode of Tales from the Crypt where an escaped psychotic dressed as Santa is menacing this lady in her house and he gets in because her daughter opens the door for him.
8. What is your least favorite holiday movie, show, and/or song?
I would say Love, Actually for the movie because some argue that it’s a holiday movie and it’s really not, but I actually do like it a little bit. No, I don’t have any least favorites — just a short list of what I’d like to see or hear, and a long list of what I have better things to do than to see or hear them.
9. What would you name a reindeer if you could? Why?
I would name a reindeer “Moose”, because it’s funny and ironic, as well as being a short and somewhat cool name.
10. Do you think Santa could benefit from a healthier snack on Christmas eve or are cookies and milk the only choice? What would you recommend for the jolly old fat man?
First of all, Santa’s not a man, he’s an elf. As the oldest he’s the chief elf in his realm (the North Pole,) and has long had the ability to affect his physical appearance to some degree. So he chooses to appear human to avoid the inconvenience of being more frightening to kids than he already is. I mean, in the first couple years if the kid cries it’s because they think you’re giving them away to this overgrown, live stuffed animal. What else are they supposed to think when you sit them on his lap and back away while trying to get them to smile? They’re not falling for it! After that, it’s like Santa’s a rock star and the moment they meet him its a coin toss as to whether or not they can hold it together. So he looks like a fat man, which worldwide elven demographics research has shown for millennia to be both a powerful and yet jovial figure most widely respected, not to mention he’s also strong enough to lift that sack, which means a lot of the bulk is muscle anyway. That gets to be a helluva workout, so why shouldn’t the old guy have cookies and milk? There’s his sugar, there’s his protein, BAM. Energy for the road. For what it’s worth, NPR&D looked into the possibility of switching Santa over to quick-release nutrient gels like a lot of runners use in marathons, but for some reason nothing has ever worked as well as real cookies and milk, with the best results coming from fresh baked cookies and whole milk.
Put that in your stocking, folks.